How do you respond when you hear the word 'vegan'?
a) repress a shudder
b) say 'oh, I could never do that'
c) switch off your attention
d) all of the above
Most of society (may or may not include me from the past) seem to envisage all vegans as preachy, lettuce-obsessed individuals who get a kick out of shaming/guilt-tripping people who eat meat or other animal products.
But gradually, as more and more people have endorsed it (including people publicly admired, such as Ellen DeGeneres, Jared Leto, Serena Williams and Ellie Goulding to name a few), it does seem to have prompted a slight shift in attitude and begun to chip away at the undeniable stigma surrounding veganism.
For instance, 'Veganuary' (the non-profit organisation encouraging people to take the month-long pledge to live on a vegan diet for the whole of January) have reported rising figures of public participation from 2014-2015 (approximately from 4,000-12,800 people), with the projected figure of around 50,000 people having taken part this January, 2016 (concrete figures have not yet been released).
'Veganuary' as a campaign has approached the idea of veganism from a few different angles, discussing health, environmental and ethical issues, with constant references to statistics, studies and famous people who advocate it. The use of statistics and celebrity advocates are persuasive tactics in themselves (Chaiken, 1980; McCracken, 1989), nevertheless there is one resounding tactic they have maintained across their website to get the message and relevant information of veganism across.
These are some screenshots from their section where they discuss the health benefits of a vegan diet:
As depicted, they list all the health problems which can be avoided if one becomes vegan. This persuasive technique can be seen as appealing to 'affect-based dissonance', related to negative feelings such as fear and discomfort (Keller & Block, 1999).
However, it is not as simple as all that. Keller & Block (1999) further explored how people's prior stances towards certain information would ultimately influence their behaviour. They conducted a study to investigate whether people's attitudes towards practising safe sex could be altered and split the participants into two groups based on 'prior intention', meaning if they self-reported beforehand an intention to or not to practice safe sex, they would be placed in the 'high prior intention' and 'low prior intention' conditions respectively.
The participants were then further assigned to either a 'low-fear' or 'high-fear' condition. The 'low-fear' condition involved receiving a brochure which listed some of the milder health problems of not practising safe sex, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, soreness and oral herpes, whilst the 'high-fear' condition mentioned problems seen as far more severe, such as HIV (the AIDS virus), syphilis, AIDS related cancers and even death.
This table (Table 2) illustrates the effect of the 'fear' condition and 'prior intention' on dissonance and overall persuasiveness.
As shown in the first column, affect-based dissonance (level of negative emotion experienced) resulting from reading the brochure, was higher among low-prior intention participants when they received the high-fear brochure.
However, due to this, higher message denial was consequently experienced, which meant overall, lower persuasion and lower intentions to take on the beneficial information of safe sex.
These findings can be applied to the example of veganism and the way it is perceived in society. The stigma of vegans (e.g. preachy, self-righteous) can be seen as stemming from the extremist advocates of the lifestyle, one of the most notable people with a large following online being Leanne Ratcliffe, otherwise known as 'Freelee The Banana Girl' - with over 136,000,000 views across all of her media content, she is best known for feeding into this stereotype. Her videos include shaming all lifestyles that are not vegan, branding some people's choices of diet as "eating disorders" and using graphic, explicit imagery of the cruelty present in the agriculture industry.
These are a few sample titles of her video blogs online:
If we relate this to the study above (Keller & Block, 1999), 'Freelee The Banana Girl' is receiving such a negative response online as her method or tactic for spreading information is similar to that of an extreme, 'high-fear' technique, causing much affective dissonance and negativity. Vegan lifestyles in today's society are still seen as nowhere near to meat-eating lifestyles, therefore it is reasonable to suggest that the majority of people will not approach veganism with 'high prior intentions' (I certainly didn't). Ultimately, her message-spreading is not very persuasive, generating more anger from people than a willingness to listen, evidenced by the amount of dislikes per video and the fact that it's as if World War 3 is happening in all of her comment sections.
This is a stark contrast with how 'Veganuary' have gone about the subject; there is no shaming, only positive but firm messages of how veganism can benefit you, with objective evidence to back their claims. The discovery that 'lower fear' is more effective with 'low prior intentions' (Keller & Block, 1999) seems to be working in their favour, with their participation figures on the rise every year.
Chaiken, S., (1980). Heuristic versus Systematic Information Processing and the Use of Source versus Message Cues in Persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 752-766.
Health Benefits, A Happier and Healthier Life. (2016) Retrieved from http://www.veganuary.com/why/health-benefits/
Keller, P.A. and Block, L.G., (1999). The effect of affect-based dissonance versus cognition-based dissonance on motivated reasoning and health-related persuasion. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, (3), pp. 302-313.
McCracken, G. (1989). Who is the Celebrity Endorser? Cultural Foundations of the Endorsement Process. Journal of consumer research, 16, 310-321.